On election night, John Waihee was on a Hawaiian Airlines red-eye flight from Honolulu to New York City.

The former Hawaii governor, who supported fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, did not know who had been elected president until the pilot made the announcement after landing.

“The entire plane went silent,” Waihee recalled. “Not a sound.”

The nation and world are in an uncertain state in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise ascension to the presidency. In the islands, some Native Hawaiians are wondering how they might be impacted — especially their movements toward self-governance and independence.

Joshua Noga Hawaiian forum Farrington HS. 10 nov 2016
Joshua Noga opened a recent forum on the future of a Hawaiian nation with a call for “civility with aloha.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Asked Monday about the prospects for Hawaiians under Trump, Waihee, the state’s first governor of Hawaiian ancestry, admitted, “I have no idea.”

Waihee recommended patience.

“One thing that we know is that this is not the first challenge that native people have had with any president.” — John Waihee

“I don’t know how he’s going to react, frankly, and the best thing to do would be to wait and see how everything unfurls,” said Waihee. “One thing that we know is that this is not the first challenge that native people have had with any president. It goes up and down politically.”

Several Hawaiian leaders have indicated since Trump’s election that efforts toward self-governance, such as the Nai Aupuni convention earlier this year, will continue no matter who occupies the White House.

Governor Waihee Democratic Convention held at Sheraton Hotel. 28 may 2016
Former Gov. John Waihee listened during the state Democratic Party convention proceedings in May. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Endeavors to reinstate an independent nation continue as well.

Some Hawaiians insist the Hawaiian Kingdom, overthrown in 1893 by American-supported business interests, still exists. Many of them believe international law supercedes federal law when it comes to native rights.

For now at least, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s rule-making process on federal recognition — the one finalized in late September — remains intact.

Who Defines Self-Determination?

Hawaiian nationalists like Mililani Trask interpret Trumps’s election as having “trumped” the DOI rules, as she puts it. She said the DOI is “DOA” — dead on arrival.

Trask, who made her remarks along with others at a public forum last week on the future of a Hawaiian nation, said she doubted whether most Hawaiians had bothered to read the 172-page DOI ruling.

If they did they’d learn, Trask said, that the purpose of the federal rule is not to give Hawaiians self-determination but rather to facilitate the ability of some Hawaiians to gain control of congressional programs that benefit Hawaiians.

What federal recognition will not accomplish is a return to Hawaiians of land and resources, she said, with the exception of the uninhabitable island of Kahoolawe. Trask argues that the DOI process would result in Hawaiians relinquishing independence.

Mililani Trask. Farrington HS. 10 nov 2016
Mililani Trask is critical of the the U.S. Department of the Interior’s rule-making process regarding Hawaiian self-determination. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

“This process does not give us the right of self-determination under international law,” said Trask, who formerly led an independence group called Ka Lahui. “Native Hawaiians should determine their own political status.”

Robin Danner, the founder of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, feels otherwise about federal recognition. The election of Trump, she said, “has no impact, no bearing” on the DOI process. “It’s pau.”

“Native Hawaiians should determine their own political status.” — Mililani Trask

Danner, who spoke at the same forum as Trask at Farrington High School in Kalihi, said “there is nothing for President Obama or Trump to do,” meaning that it is now up to Hawaiians. She wants Hawaiians to be in control of their own businesses and education, something she believes federal recognition will help.

DOI spokesperson Amanda DeGroff confirmed that the final rule to create a pathway for re-establishing a formal government-to-government relationship with Native Hawaiians is unchanged.

She also emphasized that the decision to reorganize a Native Hawaiian government “is one for the Native Hawaiian community — not the federal government — to make as an exercise of self-determination.”

Peter Apo seafood fishing editorial. 24 june 2016
Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Peter Apo backs federal recognition. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Danner also dismissed as “selling snake oil” the notion that the only option for Hawaiians is independence versus federal recognition. It’s not one or the other, she said, but both.

“We must take every tool, whether state or federal or international,” she argued. “That is the reality.”

Earlier this week, her council sent out a press release titled “Policy Advocacy in a Trump Administration.” It called for finding areas of “common ground” in the administration, just as the council would with any new president.

“Let’s start to think through what kinds of tax reform issues to pursue, what kinds of U.S. Treasury investments to push that appeal to both D’s and R’s (bonds, tax credits, Community Development Financial Institutions programming), that directs much needed funding resources to our communities, to capitalizing our farmers and businesses, and so on,” wrote Danner.

Moderator Ikaika Hussey at Hawaiian forum Farrington HS. 10 nov 2016
Ikaika Hussey moderated the forum at Farrington, which was organized by Aha Aloha Aina. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There is also a third option for Hawaiians: to do nothing.

Kelii Akina, who upset an incumbent trustee in the Nov. 8 election to serve on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, ran on a platform that called for shutting off OHA’s spending on nation-building.

While echoing Waihee’s advice that it’s too early to predict how Trump’s presidency will affect Hawaiians, Akina said, “OHA’s own internal research reveals that what the Hawaiian people want most is not a wasteful and divisive nationhood project, but jobs, education, health care and housing.”

He concluded: “These are exactly the things that President-elect Trump said are his highest priority. Focusing on these needs rather than pouring more resources into nation-building could greatly benefit Native Hawaiians.”

Party Sympathies

In recent years, federal support for Native Hawaiian rights has generally been greater among Democrats than Republicans.

In 1993, when Waihee was governor and Bill Clinton was president, Congress enacted the Apology Resolution to Hawaiians on behalf of the United States for its role in the overthrow and committed the federal government to a process of reconciliation.

Clinton was also president in 2000 when Interior and the Department of Justice issued a report citing the need to foster self-determination for Hawaiians under federal law.

The so-called Akaka bill on federal recognition, a precursor to the DOI rule-making that was named after former Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Democrat, passed a Democrat-controlled House and later a GOP-controlled House (Democrat Rep. Neil Abercrombie championed the legislation) but fell short under a Republican-controlled Senate.

Robin Danner Farrington HS forum. 11 nov 2016
Robin Danner supports federal recognition. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Opposition to the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act centered on concerns that it was race-based and thus unconstitutional.

Linda Lingle, Hawaii’s Republican governor from 2002 to 2010, lobbied aggressively for the Akaka bill’s passage. Some officials in the George W. Bush’s administration did not support the bill, but Lingle worked with the Justice Department to assuage concerns.

In the end, however, the bill never made it out of Congress. Akaka retired in 2012, the same year that Dan Inouye, who also championed the legislation, died.

“We must take every tool, whether state of federal or international.” — Robin Danner

There is little indication from Trump’s policy statements thus far that indigenous and Hawaiian issues are even on his radar,  although Trump himself in the past fought Native Americans to advance his business interests.

But there are also concerns about what a Trump Department of Justice, a GOP Congress, a GOP-dominated U.S. Supreme Court and Trump appointees to lower federal courts might try to do when it comes to native rights, programs and initiatives.

Kelii Akina wants OHA to stop engaging in nation-building.
Kelii Akina wants OHA to stop engaging in nation-building. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

While legal tests of matters such as Kamehameha Schools’ admissions policy have failed (the private school gives preference to applicants of Hawaiian ancestry), courts ruled that non-Hawaiians can vote for and run as OHA candidates.

Last year, Akina and the conservative Judicial Watch sued to halt the OHA-funded Nai Aupuni’s plans to hold an election for delegates to a Hawaiian convention.

There have also been disputes about the state’s Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which grants homestead lands to qualified applicants, over issues such as delays in awards, eligibility requirements and funding of the agency.

Sense Of Urgency

Trump’s election has added urgency to the belief that Hawaiians need to mobilize and unify.

That was a theme at the Farrington High forum, which was organized by Aha Aloha Aina, a group working toward total independence from the U.S.

It drew several hundred people including Hawaiians representing a variety of views such as Walter Ritte, Kealii Lopez, Leon Siu, Kalama Kalama Niheu, Ku Kahakalau, Shane Pale, Healani Sonoda-Pale, Davis Price, Ikaika Hussey, Andrew Perez, Michelle Kauhane, Kahookahi Kanuha, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu and Maile Meyer.

(You can view the entire nearly four-hour forum that was live-streamed by H. Doug Matsuoka’s and posted at Aha Aloha Aina’s YouTube link.) 

In addition to the reality of a President Trump, the need for Hawaiians to come together was stressed by several participants. Hawaiians with different positions need to stop looking at each other as “enemies on opposite sides of the battlefield,” Price said.

Dr Kalama Niheu. Farrington HS. Hawaiian forum 10 nov 2016
Kalama Niheu, a leader of Aha Aloha Aina, urged restoration of an independent nation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As forum moderator Hussey put it, “We all awoke to a very different world,” noting that Trump had already indicated an oil executive would likely run the Environmental Protection Agency.

The need for Native Hawaiians to reconcile and compromise has been a challenge for decades.

OHA Trustee Peter Apo, who did not attend the Farrington forum, said he was skeptical the pro-self-governance and pro-independence sides — as well as Hawaiians who favor neither path — could ever be compatible. (Apo is a Civil Beat columnist.)

“From my perch, no, I don’t believe the two are reconcilable,” said Apo, who favors federal recognition and wants to see the DOI process come to fruition. “But the final arbiter of that question ought to be for Hawaiians to vote on it in a democratic process. That is my No. 1 position.”

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